By Lucia Viti
North Park resident serves at-risk youth
Dairrick Hodges was 12 years old when Maya Angelou predicted that he would become a powerful voice for those sidelined by misfortune.
After winning a literary conference when he was in middle school — in which he wrote a creative response to one of Maya Angelou’s poems — Hodges was invited to attend a conference. Angelou served as one of the speakers at the event, and he was afforded a meet and greet.
Advised to arm himself with potent tools — “pen and paper” — Angelou’s “mythical presence” laid a prophetic foundation that Hodges did indeed fulfill. Today, the 30-year-old actor, musician, poet, writer, social activist and creative arts advocate from North Park works as a lighthouse for youth navigating the troubled waters of the foster care system.
Among a multitude of accomplishments, Hodges founded The SOULcial Workers, an eclectic blend of artists and innovators who use the “transformative power of the arts” to facilitate a connection. Currently, he serves as SOULcial Workers’ executive artistic director.
Programs and services, which are dedicated to social, educational, creative and emotional development, afford youth in vulnerable populations the opportunity to be “seen, heard and ultimately be understood.”
With a goal of building community, educators and entertainers spearhead platforms of inclusion such as music, dance, interactive theater and storytelling. “Edutainment” programs serve to “develop awareness, leadership skills, emotional literacy, cognition and compassion to enhance the relationship between inner understanding and outward expression.”
“At-risk youth need a community of compassionate and invested people to walk them through obstacles,” Hodges said. “Building community is everything. As social artists, we’re creators, innovators, activists, advocates and healers who believe in the transformative power of the arts. As artists, we have to the responsibility to influence positive change in our communities.
“I vow to prevent senseless loss,” he continued. “I vow to ensure that no one is neglected or feels alone, limited by their differences and experiences or robbed of the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
Hodges, a child of the foster care system, grew up in a world where dysfunction was the norm.
“I never learned a language to identify or regulate my emotions,” he said. “I never understood how traumatic experiences impacted my ability to function in school, build relationships and establish safety in any environment.”
According to Hodges, artistic self-expression enabled him to survive.
“I explored artistry which fostered my talents and helped to establish a self-identity,” he said. “Because I never felt supported or understood, art offered healing, community and the power to endure uncontrollable circumstances.”
At age 8, Hodges was removed from a home riddled with addiction, mental illness, neglect and abuse. Upon the subsequent suicide of his mother and the death of his grandmother, the foster care system became his home. Life as a foster child was punctuated by isolation and instability.
Bouncing around group homes — “wherever they could find me a bed” — coincided with bouncing around schools. Hodges described life as chaotic, sad and scary. Depression and anxiety attacks became common.
“[I never knew if] today was the day my bags would be packed and waiting for me at the door,” Hodges said, adding that he avoided bonding with classmates, fearful that he’d never see them again.
“I shut down,” he explained. “I never became attached because I never knew when I would have to say goodbye.”
Completely blind to the why and when of his chronic displacement, one evening he joined his foster family for a dinner out. Sadly, he was driven to a group home. His bags had been delivered earlier that afternoon.
“I felt unloved and unwanted,” he said. “I was constantly told that something was wrong with me. I was constantly reminded that no one wanted me.”
While attending Valencia Park School, Hodges participated in the Scholastic Book Fair, which was a big deal for him. Working diligently to sell books for prizes, he asked his then-foster parents to house him long enough to complete the fair and collect his prize. They failed to oblige.
“I was shuffled because I was heavy and deemed unhealthy,” he said. “I required meds and therapy. I just caused too much fuss.”
Parentless, he became the poster child for fosters noting, “something was wrong with the kid who didn’t belong to anyone.” Feeling stigmatized as “bad,” he became severely depressed.
“I became fatter and quieter,” he said. “I stopped talking. I didn’t participate in activities. I refused to speak to social workers. I said nothing during therapy. I stayed quiet in class. I disliked myself a lot.”
Distant, bowlegged and overweight, Hodges became an easy target for bullies. Physically beaten, he often hid in an auditorium.
Serendipitously one afternoon during play practice, an astute teacher invited the frightened third-grader to join the performance. Hodges accepted and for the first time, he said he looked at himself differently.
After that, Hodges said he emerged as the “fat weird kid with talent,” which helped him feel more socially accepted. Transferred to the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) by the fifth grade, Hodges realized that fighting and working the system were requirements to remain at SCPA, the school of his choice.
“I petitioned the courts to stay at SCPA despite juggling through several homes,” he said. “Challenged but determined, I reshaped my thinking to get what I wanted. The process of exercising my voice taught me advocacy.”
Lawyers and social workers also petitioned on his behalf, identifying the arts as a positive influence.
Hodges became a youth advocate against a system he deemed unfairly ran around him. He served on school conference panels as a voice for those who were lost in the system, never fearing the words, “this is wrong.”
“I counseled my peers to address the issues of what was and wasn’t working with a plan to resolve the issues that didn’t work,” he said.
Despite his impressive imprint, Hodges aged out of the foster care system and became homeless. The teenager never received counseling for transitional housing or directives for applying for a job.
Management at his first paying gig, the San Diego Center for Children, never knew he was homeless. Hodges began researching avenues for a healthy — and safe — transition.
Humbled by homelessness, he once again transformed his life experiences into a platform for helping others. Today, he works on the frontline, combing the streets searching for kids who need a community advocate for emancipation.
Dedicated to helping system kids find a happier place, Hodges highlighted the importance of the arts as a window that separates at-risk from “what’s happening in their world.”
According to Hodges, loneliness and disconnection become by-products of surviving extreme levels of trauma and adverse circumstances.
“Silenced by shame, creative outlets are opportunities to express emotion,” he said. “Artists inspire and influence. Artists connect community by creating change. I can’t think of a better place to invest our aspirations for a better world than in our youth. After all, this world belongs to them.”
He added that disadvantaged youth often present a spectrum of behaviors that include substance abuse and suicide, the second-leading cause of death among youth in the U.S.
Hodges described his work as a mentor as vindication. By “connecting to the lonely, roaming street kid,” he works through his unfinished life experiences.
“I can’t take homelessness out of my childhood, but I can ensure other kids don’t have to go through what I did,” he said. “I can fill in the gaps and be the intersections. Today, I am 100 percent of the person I needed to be to heal. I work every day with purpose. I’m the cool artist with blue hair. Standing out is OK. Kids connect. I like that.”
As the face of several San Diego Junior League programs, Hodges received The Spirit of Community Award at their latest annual gala. Despite feeling like “Cinderella at the ball,” he said he “held back tears while sweating bullets.”
The gala event was touted as a dream once “scribbled on notes crumpled in frustration.” Where he once questioned if he would ever make a difference, Hodges now reflects that the acknowledgment of his work is humbling.
“I grew up neither belonging or mattering to anyone,” he said. “Everyone expected me to fail as a dysfunctional kid who wouldn’t do anything with his life. The award was among many full-circle moments.”
The honoree described The San Diego Junior League an amazing organization, sporting “women with incredible hearts and souls” who transform community concern into collaborative action.
Hodges continues to remain active in all things that serve at-risk youth. While caught up in the whirlwind that is his life, he said he realizes how lucky he was to have met Maya Angelou.
“I want to tattoo her fingerprints where she touched my skin,” he said. “Maya Angelou influenced the man I’ve become, planting seeds that are still rooted.”
With no intention of slowing down, Hodges continues to build upon The SOULcial Workers while contracted as the creative arts facilitator for Project AWARE, which is a program that teaches healthy relationships and emotional literacy at The San Diego Center for Children.
Angelou’s iconic poem, “Still I Rise,” remains a favorite daily reminder of his ongoing journey.
—Contact Lucia Viti at email@example.com.